Those oil-filled pens and other objects with moveable images are called “floating action,” “tilt” or “action” items — or just plain old “floaty” collectibles. These simple but fascinating things have been popular souvenir and promotional give-away items since the process was invented in the late 1940s. Pens are the most common floaty items, but pencils, letter openers and nearly anything with a cylindrical handle have been made over the years. This example, a key chain (plastic barrel is 3 3/4 inches long; standard 1 inch key ring), is a souvenir from the 1964s Olympics, held in Tokyo, Japan.
Many people know of the Esso oil drum floaty pen by Eskensen, which is called the first floating action pen. But that’s not entirely true… Many attempts had been made before this, and by many other companies and inventors too. But it was Peder Eskesen who successfully found a method of sealing the oil-filled tubes that didn’t have chronic leaking problems. So the Esso pen might be best called the first commercially successful floating action item.
There are three variations on floating action:
The first and oldest type consists of an oil-filled chamber with at least one light object that simply floats; like a snow globe, a shake or movement makes the objects float about.
Next came the “conceal and reveal” type, in which graphics magically appear or disappear on the side of the pen as it is tipped from side to side. These are most commonly recalled as the “tip and strip” pens, in which tipping the pen causes the clothing on the female to disappear, revealing a partially clad or nude figure behind.
The third type is called photoramic float. In these floaty items, the liquid-filled chamber has at least one small pane of film with a graphic design floating inside the liquid; tipping or moving the item causes the panes to float up and down the chamber’s length, creating an animation. The more panes of film, the more fascinating the animation. Eskesen obtained the patent for manufacturing pens this way in 1955.
Souvenir floaty collectibles — vintage and new — are more likely to be found than advertising or promotional ones. Many promotional floaty pens and other items were created for in-house use, to thank employees, vendors, etc., and therefore were made in smaller quantity and so typically bring higher prices. Even true advertising items and promotional premiums for the public are less common because these usually were utilitarian items made to be used and given away so that the recipient would use the items and in doping so would be reminded of the company or brand on the piece. Such utilitarian use, however, means that many of these items were just tossed away — even more often than souvenir and travel items which, even without sentimentality, were purchased and therefore given a higher value.
Photos of the 1964 Olympics key chain is from my eBay listing.